The Innocents

A mostly successful examination of the capacity for cruelty that spotlights a talented young cast.

Synopsis: During the bright Nordic summer, a group of children reveal their dark and mysterious powers when the adults aren’t looking. In this original and gripping supernatural thriller, playtime takes a dangerous turn.

We are first introduced to Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) as she indulges in two moments of unprovoked cruelty. She forcefully steps on a worm and in the car with her non-verbal sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) turns to pinch her, seemingly testing the boundaries for inflicting pain without being stopped. This simmering anger is brought into sharp focus by a burgeoning new friendship with Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy displaying otherworldly abilities. Along with Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), the group begin to expand their abilities, but soon distinct personal differences begin to drive a substantial wedge between them.

Sinister children are nothing new in horror, but Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents is a film unafraid to head in some dark directions, primarily functioning as a study of developing empathy (or the lack of) in its young characters. The characters testing their limits, studying surroundings and consequences of actions and the imapct on other people does lead to some grisly scenes. One scene in question will be an incredibly difficult watch for cat lovers and mileage will vary on how necessary viewers deem it. Personally, I found it a vital scene that portrays the differences between the characters involved incredibly effectively, but it is justly difficult to watch nonetheless.

Another element that some may struggle with is neurotypical performer Alva Brynsmo Ramstad portraying neurodivergent, non-verbal character Anna. While the presentation of Anna is positive (especially in contrast to Ida’s anger) and her relationship with Aisha is moving, there are moments where this veers into the trope of the ‘magical disabled person’ and a particular plot thread involving her condition sits uncomfortably. Vogt did consult with families with autistic children as part of the writing process but the final product does, at times, fall back into more regressive representation.

Where the film undoubtedly succeeds is in its use of space and movement. The flats that the children occupy are large, identical structures, appearing the same even when the camera swirls upside-down around them. The chilly, anonymous effect this creates lends a huge amount of atmosphere and the nearby woodland that the children take to exploring is, at first, a freer, more relaxed space of texture and opportunity. That space is more malleable, more open to warping as the plot develops. There is a geography at work with the film returning to key areas like the woozy heights of the stairwell throughout the runtime. The relative anonymity and isolation that the flats offer, despite their proximity to one another comes to the surface in several important scenes to particularly upsetting effect.

The performances are excellent, especially as everyone involved is so young. Sam Ashraf perfectly embodies the hardly in control rage of Ben, answering every displayed vulnerability with a negative reaction. In contrast, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim brings a huge amount of sensitivity and likeability to her role as Aisha with her seemingly cosmic empathy. Despite the potential discomfort around representation, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad is good as Anna, especially given her lack of dialogue. It is, however, Rakel Lenora Fløttum’s Ida who is the focal point here and deservedly so. Ida as a character is on the cusp of leaning into her cruelty or discovering compassion and Fløttum handles these changing positions incredibly well.

While the film is good at the more grounded, social elements of the plot, the central powers feel ill-defined. Early supernatural moments are technically competent, using more subtle means for the most part and it is this grounding that makes them work. The logic of those powers (even with the suspension of disbelief that comes with this kind of narrative) can be called into question, with some leaps in ability appearing so suddenly it feels like scenes have been cut. There is a sense that these developments are made specifically to drive moments of spectacle, which even when well-realised feel unnecessary when compared to the more effective, grounded and altogether more impactful moments. In addition to adding spectacle, these supplementary powers also serve as a functional way of moving the narrative along when it feels like the film has somewhat written itself into a corner.

The Innocents makes for a frequently uncomfortable watch, unafraid to indulge in its darker impulses and this is to its credit. While not wholly successful, a horror film that leans into making an unsettling atmosphere, disturbing set pieces and even some hard-won emotional threads should be on everyone’s radar.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

The Innocents is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas on May 20th.

Mums & Sons Pocketbook

A brand new pocketbook of horror film analysis is set to be released on May 6th from the brilliant Rebecca McCallum. To check out her online work, treat yourself to a look at her Linktree. Mums & Sons represents Rebecca’s first feature-length publication and you will not want to miss it.

Using three definitive horror texts, this exploration will take a close look at how these relationships operate across three major stages in life: boyhood (The Babadook), teenage years (Hereditary) and adulthood (Psycho). Touchstones in this examination will include – the damaging nature of secrets, the importance of setting, notions of doubling and duality, acts of repression, outsider status and one of the greatest taboos of all – the horror of motherhood.

With three excellent films under discussion, Mums & Sons should not be missed if you love horror and analysis. The book features Ken Wynne’s eye-catching art, including this striking piece of Annie from Hereditary hard at work with her miniatures.

The book has already received praise from numerous prominent reviewers, including Mae Murray (The Book of Queer Saints Horror Anthology) who calls the work ‘deeply reverent to horror’s psychological intricacies’. Tim Coleman (Moving Pictures Film Club) calls it ‘insightful, inquisitive and forensic’, while Amber T (Ghouls Magazine) has drawn attention to ‘Rebecca’s passion for genre cinema’.

You can order your copy right now ahead of the release on May 6th for only £7 from Plastic Brain Press.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Silent Land

An unsubtle but confident satirical thriller on privileged disconnection.

Synopsis: A perfect couple rents a holiday home on a sunny Italian island. The reality does not live up to their expectations when they find out that the pool in the house is broken. Ignorant of the fact that the island faces water shortage, they ask for someone to fix it. The constant presence of a stranger invades the couple’s idea of safety and starts a chain of events, which makes them act instinctively and irrationally, heading to the darkest place in their relationship.

Adam (Dobromir Dymecki) and Anna (Agnieszka Zulewska) are looking to enjoy a holiday together, remaining mostly secluded in an expensive villa home. Their ideas of remaining isolated are scuppered, however, when they demand to have their pool fixed. During the maintenance, an accident occurs that throws their holiday and relationship into flux in a deliberately told study of privileged apathy.

Agnieszka Woszczynska’s debut feature may be one of the most confident and tightly controlled debuts for some time. Long, static shots focus on the beauty of pastel-coloured surroundings while building an oppressive atmosphere. The camera moves slowly from these static bases, often panning to find characters in new moments of stillness. These moments come to reflect the film’s wider messaging about inaction with long pauses allowing the film’s decisions to rest heavily on those within and outside the frame.

Dymecki and Zulewska handle the material well, especially given how disconnected they have to be for much of the run time. The couple, although close, feel distant throughout, with even their intimacy and passion for one another becoming presented as detached and shrouded in darkness. Their increasingly terse interactions and particularly the unfurling of Adam’s confidence requires a lot from them, that they deliver convincingly, even when the situation leans into the more surreal side of satire. Language barriers create further tension as they are drawn into a process that neither entirely understand.

The political commentary on display is far from subtle and at times, this is to its detriment. The class divide is on stark display, as is the concept of entitlement. A recurring dog that encounters both the pool repair man and the couple at various points is the film’s most successful visual motif, reflecting the differences between them and the evolution of characters. The couple refer to the event that has thrown their holiday into chaos as an ‘uncomfortable situation’, seeking to play down its importance and impact.

Woszczynkska’s technical choices support the film’s power. With so many scenes involving the central pair remaining static, the brief sections where the pair attend a restaurant or town offer an element of vibrant respite from the coldness elsewhere. The warm colours and movement in a scene from the village highlight the difference between their increasingly closed off experience, punctuated by evolving paranoisa and self-questioning. Moments of jovial conversation are overlapped by the hum of a car engine, denying that connection. While all this builds tension and provides food for thought, the final scene offers perhaps the film’s most effective scene, arresting in its simplicity.

Agnieszka Woszczynska displays a tight control over her characters, bringing a sprawling, beautiful location into something sinister. The unrushed pace of this may not be for everyone, but its thematic power emanates from every scene.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Silent Land screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Nitram

This striking true crime portrait, although understandably controversial, manages to find insight without sensationalism.

Synopsis: Events leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre on Tasmania in an attempt to understand why and how the atrocity occurred.

That the synopsis reads that this is an attempt to understand is notable. This is a film that, for the most part, has no real answers as to why it happened. The reality behind these cases is that unlike in narrative films, these atrocities lack one easily definable inciting event, but are an accumulation of multiple life events and individual psychology. Reflecting the often fractured nature of these extreme criminal acts, the film concerns itself less with why and more to how, resulting in some of the film’s most powerful moments.

Director Justin Kurzel is no stranger to tackling Australian true crime stories in unflinching detail. For Nitram he is reunited with Snowtown writer Sean Grant with the pair ready to probe the circumstances around another Australian tragedy. Nitram is controversial by the very existence of the film, given that the shooter the film is based on has very strict restrictions on the kind of media he is allowed to consume due to his own preoccupation with his actions. It is a relief, then, that the film avoids too much detail on the event, focusing instead on how it was able to unfold. The focus on domestic spaces as unsafe, pressured areas in which everyone falls into damaging patterns is retained from that early work, even if it does not depict the violence as explicitly.

The early sections of the film are challenging, owing to a reliance on getting into the same headspace as Nitram (Caleb Landry-Jones on typically fine, terrifying form). His erratic behaviour is punctuated by moments of reckless impulse that undermine any attempts at human connection. That initial energy impacts the film negatively, as it tries to keep pace with his various outbursts. A perhaps unlikely friendship with older, eccentric loner Helen (Essie Davis) signals the point at which the film begins to slow from some of those excesses. Nitram’s mother (Judy Davis) delivers an incredible near-monologue about a challenging experience she experienced when her son was younger. It is a chilling story that sucks the air out of the room and exploits the tension between her role as a parent and acknowledging her son as a dangerous person. It is easy to see the echoes of films like We Need To Talk About Kevin in the lack of connection they share. His relationship with his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is similarly tumultuous, seemingly compounded by his own mental health struggles. There is a discomfort every time they meet as a group, the film constantly on the edge of outburst, yet always leaving something unsaid.

The less concerned the film is with echoing Nitram’s experience and personality, the more successful it is in exploring the situation. Caleb Landry Jones’ performance maintains the intensity and makes everything external, keeping nothing under wraps. By the film’s conclusion, the focus moves away from him, starting to look beyond him and into society. That he finds some comfort in Helen who is similarly detached from society feels, at times, like half-hearted finger pointing, rightly not positing that teasing has caused the issue. Indeed, from the very first scene in which children in hospital are quizzed about their burns and playing with fireworks. One child is remorseful, having learned about the dangers. The second, meanwhile is confident that they will do it again, positing that the central character’s pathology is as much a risk to himself as others and indicates something innate in Nitram that makes him predisposed to the behaviour.

The film is at its most convincing when it settles into something more sober, away from the outbursts and tension. The horror is heart-haltingly potent as the film reaches a state of calm. A late scene is punishingly effective, bringing the weight of the situation home without the need for anything graphic. Throughout the film, hazy shooting in high light to reflect the shine from the sea posits the area as idyllic and completely unprepared for violence and ill-equiped for those who don’t find comfort and stability in such a place.

A stirring portrait of a disaster in the making that depicts rather than disects, Nitram reflects the conceptually messy true crime genre while taking a step back from sensationalising, to great effect.

4 out of 5 stars

Nitram played as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

Glasgow Film Festival 2022: Ashgrove

A thoughtful and enveloping domestic drama that successfully balances the central relationship and sci-fi concept.

Synopsis: Set in the not-so-distant future, Dr. Jennifer Ashgrove – one of the world’s top scientists – is battling to find a cure to a crisis that affects the world’s water supply. As the weight of the world takes its toll, she retreats to the countryside with her husband in a bid to clear her mind. But their relationship is strained, and they soon realise that their ability to save their marriage will literally determine the fate of humankind itself.

The opening moments of Ashgrove set out a rather grim scenario the characters find themselves in. The water supply is slowly poisoning the population due to a vaccine-resistant pandemic event. Jennifer Ashgrove (Amanda Brugel) is one of the scientists tasked with finding a cure, but the pressure of her job, the challenge of carefully portioning and monitoring water intake plus her increasingly fraught marriage to Jason (Jonas Chernick) results in her eureka moment being disrupted by a sudden blackout and resultant memory loss. Advised to recuperate, she and Jason head to the countryside but both the pandemic and their relationship woes prove difficult to put behind them.

The continuous risk assessments that characters undertake in measuring water allowances, while obviously very different to the events of the last few years, may still be too close to everyday anxieties for some, but this is not a film concerned with escapism, instead turning a global concern into an incredibly personal, individual one. The film does well to communicate the situation and impact on the characters. Marked water bottles for allowances and an app for testing toxicity have become routine, but the overriding threat of how too much or too little water impacts on health casts a weight over proceedings, making Jennifer’s recovery all the more vital.

The decision to shoot the film in chronological order, while likely challenging, benefits the film greatly. Brugel has a writing credit, alongside Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde, indicating that this is a project where collaboration is at the forefront. This benefit is felt in how natural and assured the performances are. It also adds an overall sense of cohesion, with each performer matching the other’s energy and heading in the same direction. Each development is carefully built upon the last, skillfully drip-feeding details as it moves along.

Chernick and Brugel work well together, able to manage both the tense moments of the relationship, while also providing much-needed moments of levity where fond feelings surface. A scene featuring an impromptu song establishes what they once saw in one another, amidst all the tension. Finding those moments of rediscovery while also not undermining the conflict and gravity speaks to the easy chemistry they share. When friends Elliot (Shawn Doyle) and Sammy (Natalie Brown) arrive later, their after-dinner games begin to unpick at painful rifts. So often, it is easy to view these characters as additions purely to say something more about the central couple, but the relationships feel fully-formed, adding considerably to the tension.

While the film’s intimacy with characters and the closed-off setting drive much of the narrative, the film does occasionally over-explain itself. Each carefully woven element comes to portray further meaning in a way that satisfies, but at times, lacks confidence. The messaging is clearly articulated, so attempts to further explain stall the pace a little, especially as this becomes quite dialogue-heavy. This is easily recovered, however, with the central story continuing on the basis of our relationship to these characters. That Jennifer’s dedication to her work has come at a considerable personal cost is never far from the surface. It is this tension that threatens to break through the film’s otherwise mellow, measured exterior.

While this is likely best described as a relationship drama viewed through a dystopian near-future lens, those dystopic elements have a real strength. Themes of autonomy, personal sacrifice and professional dedication all surface throughout the film with a sinister undertone that becomes more overt as the film progresses. The idea is unique and best experienced as the gradual unfurling of the film, so this is definitely one best watched without too much prior knowledge of these developments.

Ashgrove is a well-constructed story of a marriage in crisis and the immense personal cost endured by those called upon to assist during crises.

4 out of 5 stars

Ashgrove screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2022.

The Midnight Swim

Sarah Adina Smith’s excellent stripped-back cosmic horror from 2014 gets a new lease of life thanks to a Vinegar Syndrome release.

Synopsis: Spirit Lake is unusually deep. No diver has ever managed to find the bottom, though many have tried. When Dr. Amelia Brooks disappears during a deep-water dive, her three daughters travel home to settle her affairs. They find themselves unable to let go of their mother and become drawn into the mysteries of the lake.

The Midnight Swim is one of those films that despite sounding exactly like the kind of film I would be instantly drawn to, I’d actually not heard of. This carefully controlled and deeply emotional film is one that deserves far more attention. Excellent performances and a unique story make this a fascinating horror with an ability to portray vast ideas with a sensitive, personal quality.

Focused primarily on three sisters who find themselves reconnecting around the disappearance of their mother, The Midnight Swim presents potent tension as their life experiences and collective grief surface in frequently uncomfortable ways. Annie (Jennifer Lafleur) is starting her own family, burdened by her difficult relationship with her mother. Isa (Aleksa Palladino) is staking a claim on the property to turn it into an artistic hub, while June (Lindsay Burdge) creates distance by documenting everything with a camera. Each performer gives their all to the role, ably balancing the quiet notes while and allowing the steady creep of repressed emotions to land with considerable impact.

June’s camera gives everything a sense of, at times, uncomfortable intimacy. The film plays with the conceit of the constantly running camera, switching from tense conversations observed too closely to seemingly capturing the impossible. This deeply embeds the action within the house and surrounding area and while the film does understandably stray into the surrounding water, much of the development takes place in dinner table conversations.

One of the film’s central concepts is a folklore tale based around a fatal compulsion to be reunited with other family members. This story is never far from the minds of the sisters as they struggle with the painful lack of closure from the circumstances of their mother’s disappearance. While the film places a lot of emphasis on dialogue between the trio, it also manages to add stranger elements, whether that is the moody and eerie waterside events or a dance number that showcases one of the film’s moments of cohesion between the sisters. Sarah Adina Smith’s assured but sensitive direction creates a film that veers from suffocating to joyful while weaving a far bigger story that transcends the family.

4.5 out of 5 stars

The Midnight Swim is now available on digital in North America (Alamo on Demand, Altavod, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu), in the UK (Amazon, iTunes), Ireland (iTunes) and Australia and New Zealand (iTunes). A collectors edition BluRay is available from Vinegar Syndrome.

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022: Here Before

Here Before delivers on an emotional level due to a reliably great performance from Andrea Riseborough.

Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is a women who is dealing with the fallout from a pronounced loss in the form of her daughter Josie. When a family move in next door with their daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan), their connection is instant, with Laura wanting to be around her and Megan spending increasing amounts of time at her new neighbour’s house. As Megan begins to act out at school, the relationship is called into question.

It is the performances that secure the film’s quiet power, with a meditation on grief, but more explicitly on yearning for a past that cannot be reclaimed. It is exactly the kind of role that Andrea Riseborough excels at, holding the weight of the world on her shoulders in every scene. Though she carries the emotional weight, there is also enough emotional softness and even fragility to her performance that lends her interactions with Megan a gentle quality. While many of Megan’s strange behaviours are relayed in dialogue about her when she is called upon she delivers a convincing, confident performance.

Lewis McAskie offers a strong supporting performance as Laura and Brendan’s (Jonjo O’Neill) son Tadhg. Initially quietly hostile about the relationship between his mother and the neighbour’s daughter, that hostility soon bubbles to the surface in a combination of frustration and worry for her state of mind. The entire film rests on nervous energy and the potential of something to erupt at any moment.

Disorientating sequences with dissonant sound and images give the film a lift from an otherwise beige, domestic space. These dreams are further stylised by elements presenting as out of sync, echoing Laura’s increasingly fragmented mental state. Chirpy songs combine with swirling visuals before cutting to an abrupt silence. The soundtrack plucks at its most sinister moments although this is a film that operates a high level of restraint. Conversations are also cut or silenced in the middle of responses, leaving hopes of clarity tantalisingly close, yet drawing out any resolution for as long as possible.

Here Before is a disarmingly quiet film that does suffer from taking on a story that only has a few directions to head in. It does well to straddle those directions for much of the runtime, resulting in a conclusion that comes too late to impact the viewer quite as much as it should. This is the kind of film that lingers in the mind for a while afterwards, taking up space to consider the pay-off even days after viewing.

A film that is rightly more interested in exploring the way that grief impacts those left behind than providing too much sensationalism Here Before is a solid film that expands beyond its runtime.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

Here Before played the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. More information on the festival is available from their webpage.

Here Before is released in UK cinemas on February 18th

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022: Envy

Another of the Seven Deadly Sins that lends itself very easily to horror is envy. The green-eyed monster can raise its head for a variety of reasons and lead to dramatic and even dangerous behaviour. The Envy shorts block all feature envy for different reasons, but all present how all-consuming the feeling can be for some. Please note: not all shorts were provided as part of press coverage.

Red is the Colour of Envy

Beck Kitsis follows her stirring gut-punch short The Three Men You Meet At Night with a different, but no less impactful story about a necklace that has strange, desirable properties. The film is bathed in red light, lending it an otherworldly quality. There is a real punch to the short, conveying its interesting idea quickly and efficiently allowing the Tales of the Unexpected style tale to take centre stage.

Inch Thick Knee Deep

Inch Thick Knee Deep primarily rests on the dialogue between two women, for the most part, cleverly unfolding the reasons for their conflict. Their tense, terse conversation dials up the pressure, switching audience sympathies. As the film progresses, so does the pressure between them. The increasing cruelty is held at a distance, suggesting horror to the viewer without indulging it graphically. This, rather than dulling the effect, adds to it considerably, allowing the audience to imagine the horror rather than being directly confronted with it. A skillfully drawn tale that perfectly fits the short film format.

Hannya

Meeting a partner’s friends can be a daunting experience and Hannya really creates a pressure-cooker like environment around it. Ana (Anaïs Parello) is in just this situation and immediately comes face-to-face with Marie (Sophie de Fürst), an old friend of her boyfriend’s who seems a little too close for comfort. Drinking games become weighty tests of Ana’s spiralling jealousy, while Marie seems determined to get closer to her. Interspersed with folklore tales and a panicked phone call, this slow-burn constantly teases out the conflict. The performances take centre stage, bouncing off one another in a way that carries an uneasy feeling throughout.

Girls Night In

One of the more overtly comic entries in this short, Girls Night In sees two friends (although given the rest of the film, friends might be a strong word) whose girls night in is interrupted by the presence of an intruder. Punchy, antagonistic dialogue sets the pair at odds as they try to convey their situation to an emergency call handler. The film sets out to have a little fun with conventional slasher tropes and will leave you chuckling at some of the one-liners, although there are moments in the pair’s exchanges of harsh words that may have you wincing too.

Murderers Prefer Blondes

Last up is delightfully surreal, thoroughly DIY effort Murderers Prefer Blondes, focused on two sisters in conflict. While this is undoubtedly rough around the edges, it is bound to raise a smile as melodrama, strange voices and a sense of fun spirit come to the surface.

For more information on Final Girls Berlin Film Festival including their ongoing Patreon content, please check out their webpage.

The Long Night

With the bold and brash nature of this film, no one is getting any sleep through this long night.

Synopsis: While searching for the parents she’s never known, New York transplant Grace returns to her childhood southern stomping grounds with her boyfriend to investigate a promising lead on her family’s whereabouts. Upon arrival, the couple’s weekend takes a bizarre, terrifying turn as a nightmarish cult and their maniacal leader terrorize the pair en route to fulfilling a twisted ancient apocalyptic prophecy.

Grace (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a woman who has been largely removed from her childhood home. Having swapped her country upbringing for sleek city life with boyfriend Jack (Nolan Gerard Funk) her return to the area is fraught with tension. The incredibly remote house they are staying in is seemingly abandoned and the surroundings are littered with unusual symbols. Snakes appear on woodland trails, in cupboards (honestly, everywhere if you have even the slightest discomfort with them, grab yourself something to hide behind because it was something of an endurance test for this ophiophobic reviewer).

The film’s choice to divide the action into chapters feels slightly unnecessary, but from the last few years this appears to be a prevailing trend in horror (enough for a sizeable Letterboxd list should anyone find themselves with a few spare hours). A lot of the issue I’ve explained in previous reviews, but for me, the presence of a chapter immediately sets my mind to how many chapters there will be, almost preemptively judging the pacing. That these chapters rarely seem to have too much impact on the way the story is told furthers this as a trend I struggle to understand. Here, the title cards to transition between chapters are small and short enough to mostly give a pass to and do, to some degree, allow a bit of breathing space from the rest of the siege-like atmosphere and so end up serving a purpose.

While the events of The Long Night are perhaps a little familiar, the strength of it is its absolute commitment to the imagery it employs. There is no room for subtlety with everything thrown at the screen. Snakes are plentiful, as are shots of the cloaked outsiders, surrounded by fire. There is something to be said for a film so firmly embracing the excesses that horror has to offer. This ambition does mean that the representation of some ideas stands on some CGI that isn’t quite convincing, but given the work the film puts into taking us out of the realms of concrete reality this is a relatively small failing. All underscored by clanging chimes on the soundtrack, there are times when the film feels like an onslaught, throwing the viewer into the heated conflict the central couple find themselves under.

If you’re looking for a pleasingly brash horror that commits to its premise with a dramatic soundscape and visual disorientation, The Long Night is one for you.

3.5 out of 5 stars

3.5 out of 5 stars

In select theaters and available on Digital (USA) on February 4th from Well Go USA

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival 2022: Medical Horror Shorts Block

Horror has always delighted in wringing terror from the body, whether that is the internal fear of illness or more prominent, unavoidable physical complaints the sensation that something is wrong is one we have all felt. Perhaps less so, is the fear that comes from not being listened to by those who are treating us or feeling restricted by those things seen as being for our own benefit. The films in the Medical Horror shorts block explore all these anxieties.

Occupational Hazard

Starting in an explosive fashion during a mining accident, Occupational Hazard explores one woman’s struggle with the after-effects of that event. Following the loud, chaotic opening, the film settles into a quieter mode of address, staying level with Diana’s (Virginia Newcomb) new need for rest and recuperation. Lack of camera focus places the viewer in her position as she struggles with the paperwork related to the event. In addition to her hazy vision, Diana is also feeling progressively more unwell, sold by impressive effects that develop throughout the runtime. This is perhaps not a new idea, but one that is solidly told.

Freya

Arguably my favourite of the block, the Freya of the title is a health monitoring and social media system in one, capable of ordering food, providing healthcare advisories and setting up one night stands to name only a few functions. Rhona Rees plays Jade, a woman who, other than the regular offerings of the system, is living a normal life. However, the control that the system has over her soon becomes too intrusive and she starts to try and regain some autonomy. The presentation of the Freya system is excellent, evoking the familiarity of current social media apps with a ‘day after tomorrow’ sci-fi dystopian overlay that really seeps into every frame. The commentary is sharp too, with the gender differences in the hook-up app review criteria a stark reminder about how they are treated. There is an undercurrent of well-placed anger within the film but under all the sleek critique there is also a wealth of human emotion that hits hard as to the demands placed on women and their health.

They Called Me David

Predominantly a collage of black and white archive-style POV shots from a medical facility, anchored by a voiceover, They Called Me David feels more like an exercise in tone than a conventionally narrative piece. Instead, it uses the immediacy of its imagery and the personalising voice to centre it. The film cleverly employs colour at various points to great effect, selling its central message but staying within its means.

Hysteria

There is nothing more frustrating than having your medical complaints dismissed without investigation and Hysteria takes that frustration to the kind of conclusion that only horror can. One of the shortest offerings in the block Hysteria manages to pack a punch. Shot in lockdown, the film embraces its need for a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic and leans into it, imbuing the film with a jumpy, frazzled quality that perfectly matches the increasing frustration of the central character. Keeping the run time short means it stays punchy and delivers on impact.

Our First Priority

Full disclosure ahead of this: I was a backer of this project when it was crowd-funded. However, this has not impacted my review and the film has been judged purely objectively.
If Hysteria functions as a short, sharp burst of rage in response to medical gaslighting, Our First Priority is the slower but still as angry counterpart. Hannah (a confident performance from Violet Gotcher) is visiting her doctor with a pre-prepared list of the symptoms she is struggling with. Despite her careful efforts to list everything, learn the meanings and rule things out, she is still dismissed. As the film unfolds, other forces appear to be at work. At the outset of Our First Priority some exchanges feel somewhat stilted in a way that holds the viewer at arm’s length, in keeping with the clinical context. Director Baska swaps clinically sterile light for more in the reds and purples, again adding to this sense of unreality that bubbles under the confrontation. This ebbs and flows throughout, subject to the interplay between the characters. For the most part, this is a pleasingly internalised film, reflecting the way that Hannah is forced to internalise, not act out at the professionals for fear of being dismissed once more. The bubbling tension serves it well as it heads steadily toward an intriguing conclusion.

For more information on Final Girls Berlin Film Festival including their ongoing Patreon content, please check out their webpage.